How Obama became black
By David Maraniss,
He was too dark in Indonesia. A “hapa” child — half and half — in Hawaii. Multicultural in Los Angeles. An “invisible man” in New York. And finally, Barack Obama was black on the South Side of Chicago. This journey of racial self-discovery and reinvention is chronicled in David Maraniss’s biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” to be published Tuesday. These excerpts trace the young Obama’s arc toward black identity, through his words and experiences, and through the eyes of those who knew him well.
“How come his mother’s skin is bright while her son’s is way darker?”
Everything about Barry seemed different to his classmates and first-grade teacher, Israela Pareira, at S.D. Katolik Santo Fransiskus in Jakarta, Indonesia. He came in wearing shoes and socks, with long pants, a black belt and a white shirt neatly tucked in. The other boys wore short pants above the knee, and they often left their flip-flops or sandals outside the classroom and studied in bare feet. Barry was the only one who could not speak Bahasa Indonesia that first year. Ms. Pareira was the only one who understood his English. He was a fast learner, but in the meantime some boys communicated with him in a sign language they jokingly called
When [his mother] Ann accompanied him to school the first day, Ms. Pareira was confused. He looked like he was from Ambon, one of the thousands of islands comprising Indonesia. It was nearly 1,500 miles east of Jakarta, and the people there were known for having darker skin. In itself, this was no big deal; the classroom was heterogeneous: Javanese, Betawanese, Bataknese, Padangnese, Ambonese, Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. But he did not look like his mother.
“She introduced herself as a foreigner, coming from Hawaii, and she pointed at Barry — ‘This is my son.’ We — me and the students who saw them for the first time — only asked ourselves, ‘How come his mother’s skin is bright while her son’s is way darker?’ It was a big question for us. But watching her drop him off at school [day after day], we became used to the idea that Barry is her son.”
To the other students, Barry’s young mother was even more exotic than he was, with her pale skin and long hair and sharp dresses.
“Whether you’re a Tamura or a Ching or an Obama, we share the same world.”
In Jakarta, many local kids looked at all Westerners as members of the wealthy class. But in Honolulu, many native Hawaiian boys displayed a prove-yourself-or-else hostility toward people with roots on the mainland. Where did this leave a hapa boy who lived with white relatives but had just returned from Indonesia and was half-African in a place where there were precious few blacks? His grandfather had told strangers that the boy was a descendent of native Hawaiian royalty. Some classmates remembered it differently, that Obama claimed his father was an Indonesian prince.
In retrospect, he would say that his name alone separated him, starting with the first day of fifth grade when his teacher introduced him fully — first, middle and last, Barack Hussein Obama. But in polyglot Hawaii, even his prep school was more than a collection of Johns and Susans and Binghams and Cookes. From a list of contemporaries, Barack mingled with the first names Nunu, Kaui, Sigfried, Malia, Lutz, Manu, Linnea, Saichi, Wada, Kalele and Nini. And for last names, Obama was there with Oba, Ochoa, Ogata, Ohama, Oishi, Okada, Oshiro, Osuna and Ota.
A few years later, Barry’s seventh-grade teacher, Miss Kang, posed eight members of her class for a yearbook photo in front of a blackboard that had the white-chalk message “MIXED RACES OF AMERICA” and a caption that read: “Whether you’re a Tamura or a Ching or an Obama, we share the same world.” Barry, looking pudgy-faced, sporting a paisley shirt and the beginnings of an afro, flashed the peace sign.
“I go by Barry so I don’t have to explain myself to the world.”
Obama’s friends and acquaintances at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he spent his first two years of college, sometimes heard him say that his father was from Kenya. On occasion he would lament that he did not know the old man, that he was gone from the family when Barry was a baby. Once in a rare while, the bitterness came out, or expressions of regret. Sometimes that part of the story was left unsaid, and the emphasis was placed on his family connection to the continent. To have an African father could be seen as a badge of distinction in the jockeying for place among the blacks at Oxy.
But the blood tie was all that Obama had then, along with a few letters from his father, the memory of his dad’s lone visit to Honolulu when Barry was in fifth grade and the stories he had heard from his mother and grandfather. He had never been to Kenya, never walked the earth around Lake Victoria, and his friend Eric Moore had.
Barry and Eric had much in common. They were tall, athletic, smooth, outwardly confident. Moore had grown up in Boulder, Colo., attended predominantly white schools, and like Obama had survived and thrived in an environment where there were few people who looked like him. He came to Los Angeles looking for “a more urban African American experience” where he, like Obama, could sort out his identity.
Together they listened to music and spent hours in the dorms dissecting the lyrics to Bob Marley’s 1979 album, “Survival.” It was among Marley’s most overtly political albums — a haunting, pounding expression of the black condition. The jacket featured the flags of 47 African nations, with Kenya in the top left corner. The song titles evoked the struggle of Africa and people in the New World with African blood: “So Much Trouble in the World,” “Africa Unite,” “One Drop,” “Ride Natty Ride,” “Ambush in the Night,” “Survival.” Obama, Moore and a few other friends broke down the songs and debated what they meant.
Barry Obama could take or leave much of the music that he heard most often in the freshman dormitory at Oxy, from new wave to punk, but it was the musical language of Bob Marley — and Stevie Wonder — that stirred him. “Obama’s consciousness, much like mine, was influenced by music, influenced by a recognition, an understanding, of the world through music,” Moore said. “Obama’s sense of social justice ultimately comes from Bob, or comes from Stevie Wonder. You can’t learn all that from a book.”
It was through their connection to music and Africa that Moore started calling Obama the name by which the world would come to know him. One day, as Moore recalled the scene, he and Obama were “sitting around, discussing the world . . . and I said, ‘Barry Obama? What is that derivative of?’ And he told me the story of how his mom had met his father. And I had been to Kenya. . . . It was a bit of serendipity in our lives. We were just kind of chatting. I was heckling a bit. . . . ‘Barry Obama, what kind of name is that for a brother?’ And he said, ‘Well, my real name is Buh-ROCK. Barack Obama.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s a strong name. Rock, Buh-ROCK.’ And we laughed about it. . . .
“He said, ‘I go by Barry so I don’t have to explain myself to the world. You’re my bro, I can give you the background on it.’ But it was basically an accommodation to the Anglo world, Anglo society. You don’t want to be singled out, necessarily.”
Obama carefully structured his persona at Oxy to avoid “being mistaken for a sellout,” he said in his memoir. But at Oxy, for the first time, though not the last, there were blacks who questioned how black Obama really was. Louis Hook, a senior when Barry was a freshman, was a leader of UJIMA, a black student group on campus. He had grown up in a housing project outside Los Angeles, was the first member of his family to get through college. Some of the African Americans at Oxy, Hook said, “just couldn’t tolerate the multicultural style of Obama. They called him an Oreo. . . . We’d get into some discussions about the Oreos.”
Hook said he understood the various African American groups at Oxy — the black separatists, the multiculturalists, everyone in between — and tried to act as a bridge to all of them. “Obama was a multicultural mainstream Oxy guy,” Hook said. “He fit right in with anybody. As long as you accepted him, he was good.”
“If America is ready for a black president, you can make it.”
During his days at Columbia University, where he transferred from Occidental, Obama discussed his struggle for identity not only with Alex McNear, an acquaintance from Oxy who became his girlfriend briefly in New York, but with a few Pakistani friends. One of his acquaintances in that group of friends was Mir Mahboob Mahmood, a student at Columbia Law School. An intellectual with a black belt in karate, he enjoyed discussing political theory and literature with Obama. They were never the closest of friends, yet their conversations seemed to bring out Barack’s innermost thoughts.
Mahmood remembered that “for a period of two or three months” when Obama was living at 94th and 1st, he “carried, and at every opportunity, read and reread a fraying copy of Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’ It was a period during which Barack was struggling deeply within himself to attain his own racial identity, and ‘Invisible Man’ became a prism for his self-reflection.”
There was a riff in that book that Mahmood thought struck close with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, “took very, very seriously the lifelong challenge of continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
By Mahmood’s account, they had known each other only a few months when Obama posed this question to him: “Do you think I will be president of the United States?”
What did this mean? “I think it was a very serious question, and clearly at least in my mind this was where he was headed,” Mahmood recalled. His answer then: “If America is ready for a black president, you can make it.”
“I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference, and scorn.”
In one letter to Alex, he told her that it seemed all his Pakistani friends were headed toward the business world, and his old high school buddies from Honolulu were “moving toward the mainstream.” Where did that leave him? “I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups,” he wrote. “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me . . . the only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [of all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”
Here, at age 22, was an idea that would become a key to understanding Obama the politician and public figure. Without a class meant that he was entering his adult life without financial security. Without a structure meant he had grown up lacking a solid family foundation, his father gone from the start, his mother often elsewhere, all leading to a sense of being a rootless outsider. Without a tradition was a reference to his lack of religious grounding and his hapa status, white and black, feeling completely at home in neither race. The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions. To make a particular choice would limit him, he wrote to Alex, because “taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable.”
In another letter, Obama informed Alex that after graduating he planned to spend several months in Indonesia and Hawaii. He was lonely, searching for connections wherever he could find them. “I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself. . . . I enter a pact with other people, other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine theirs.”
When he arrived in Indonesia, this place, once so familiar, now seemed alien as well. He had lived there for four years as a boy and had been visiting dutifully since his Hawaii days. But in a letter to Alex, he confessed that he felt disconnected. “I can’t speak the language well anymore. I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference, and scorn, because I’m an American. My money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness.”
When he returned to New York, he spent one week supervising a group of temp workers who moved the files of the Fire Department of New York from one building to another. It was, he reported, “a fascinating experience affording me a taste of the grinding toil of a low white collar job, as well as the ambivalent relationship” between bosses and workers. Just one week, yet that job gave him a boost in his search for self-identity. He had been living in the rarified environment of Oxy and Columbia, self-absorbed with his choices, contemplating life on an intellectual plane, and here were people talking about sports and life and family in ways that were not fraught with meanings and symbols. “I felt a greater affinity to the blacks and Latinos there (who predictably comprised about three fourths of the work force . . .) than I had felt in a long time,” he told Alex.
“He felt like an imposter. Because he was so white.”
If Barack and Genevieve Cook, his girlfriend in New York after he graduated from Columbia, were in social occasions as a couple, it was almost always with the Pakistanis. “Me and the Paki mob and that was it pretty much,” Genevieve said later, recounting Obama’s circle. It was a moveable feast of bounty and excess, friends losing themselves in food and conversation. But he was politely pushing away from the Pakistanis, she thought. He wanted something more.
Mahmood also saw a shift. For years when Barack was around them, he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But that is not what he wanted for his future, and to get to where he wanted to go he had to change — not cut off the Pakistanis as friends, but push away enough to establish a clear and separate identity. As a result, Mahmood recalled, “the first shift I saw him undertaking was to view himself as an American in a much more fundamental way.”
Trying to embrace his blackness, Mahmood thought, was “the second and probably the biggest shift I saw [in Obama during the New York years]. To be honest, he had never had many black friends. Not that he had anything against that, just that he was part of that other set, the international set. So for him this was a big thing. . . . Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and . . . that was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
Genevieve encouraged Barack’s search for identity. He was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” She realized that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black. I told him that. I think he felt very encouraged by my absolute conviction that his future lay down the road with a black woman. He doubted there were any black women he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, ‘No, she is out there.’ ”
“He could have been purple for all we cared.”
In came young Barack Obama for an interview with the Developing Communities Project board in a downstairs conference room at St. Helens of the Cross Church, in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago’s sprawling South Side. There sat Yvonne Lloyd, Loretta Augustine-Herron and Deacon Dan Lee, three community members on the board, along with a handful of priests. Obama arrived neat and fresh, wearing slacks, a sport coat, and shirt and tie.
“He’s six months older than my oldest child,” Augustine-Herron recalled thinking. “I looked at him and said, ‘He’s not going to make it.’ That was my first opinion. But as we got into the interview, he was so interesting. His comfort level. He was just very at ease. . . . The other thing is he was honest, and you can’t buy honesty. . . . We’d say, ‘What do you do in this case or that case?’ He was honest about his knowledge of the area, his knowledge about the situations. He would give us examples of things he could do, things he couldn’t do. He would say, ‘I’m not familiar with that, but things like that are things we will learn together.’ ”
Her concerns had dissolved by the end of the interview. “He could have been purple for all we cared. We wanted someone who was sensitive to our needs, which he was.”
The black women in the room that day, Augustine-Herron and Lloyd, along with their friend Margaret Bagby, quickly ushered Obama into their world. The three women were a generation or more older and treated Obama with protective concern as they would a favorite nephew, but were disarmed by his quiet confidence and generally followed his lead. They instructed him on the mores and idiosyncrasies of the South Side, accompanied him to endless meetings, warned him about what neighborhoods to steer clear of at night, pointed him toward other people who could be part of the network, and worried about his “health and welfare.” (Loretta: “We’d take him to lunch and we’d have sandwiches and burgers and he’d have a spinach salad. We’d say, SPINACH salad? What’s that?”)
Obama maintained some of his characteristic reserve, yet they drew him in with the warmth and noise and immediacy of their lives. Here was the day-to-day world of urban black America, a place that for all of his travels he had never really experienced before. He had driven through the streets of South-Central Los Angeles and walked up and down Lenox Avenue in Harlem, but this was different. In Chicago, Obama was finding — and being found.
“We do do that!”
Even as he was insinuating himself into the South Side culture and finding comfort in the black world there, Obama remained the participant observer. His perspective was universal, removed, not racial. He had reservations about people of every race when it came to tribal thinking. In private conversations with his assistant Johnnie Owens, a streetwise product of the South Side, he did not hesitate to point out what he saw as hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes.
“He was very clear about the unreasonable aspects of how blacks saw things in the community,” Owens said. “For example, when African Americans would complain about ‘They always show us when somebody kills somebody . . . they show a picture of a black person on TV,’ people would say, ‘They always do that!’ Barack would say, ‘We do do that!’ Or oftentimes folks would be angry about the school system. He would say, ‘Well some folks didn’t prepare their kids well for school!’ He believed there was a lot more accountability that needed to take place in the African American community. He sounded like an outsider.”
David Maraniss is an associate editor of The Washington Post.
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